Politics and the WWW
When was the last time you did anything politically motivated? I can tell you when I did – I signed a virtual petition on sumofus.org. I also sign petitions from Change.org, 38Degrees.org.uk and Avaaz.org. By the way, I also turn out and vote in every election, although the percentage of the electorate who are able to vote, and turned out to do so, has dropped for general elections from a peak of 83.9m in 1950, to 65.1m in 2010, 61.5% of the electorate. Only 34.9% bothered for the European elections. By-elections have score a pretty dismal turn-out too. Of course, the UK could make it compulsory for everyone eligible to vote do so, as is the case in Australia, but there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for this. There are many reasons for voter apathy, but for this post I’m going to confine my argument to the effect of the WWW.
Activism or Slacktivism?
Anyone born post-1980s in now described as a ‘digital native’. You have access to the WWW and use it in every area of your life – shopping, social networking, reading the news, streaming music – the list is endless, and you do it on a variety of devices, from your wristwatch to your laptop. Why walk out on a cold and wet evening, after a hard days work, just to put a cross on a piece of paper (especially when you probably think it’s not worth it – all parties are the same anyway)? You can make a real difference by signing a petition asking the UK government to do something you support, especially as the government pledged to consider debating every petition with 100,000 or over. So, how effective are on-line petitions, or are they just a way of making us feel as if we’re making a difference? Henrik Christensen (2011) concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to sustain the argument that online campaigns are effective. However, there is some evidence of a link between online and offline political engagement, so if you signed that petition you’re more likely to be politically active in real life. At worst, you’re politically aware, and that’s not a bad thing.
Does the WWW Affect Political Participation?
“A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.” – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World.
It’s my belief that the rise of mass media, pop and celebrity culture, combined with the WWW, social media, video games (and the associated technology) has made us less likely to want to actively engage with political issues, and that this is the preferred state of the ruling elite. Just as the popular media has connived with the government to convince many people to despise immigrants and so-called ‘benefit scroungers’, the rise of celebrity culture and reality TV has persuaded us we’re much better off indoors, desensitised to the world of politics. Owen Jones refers to this as ‘mediaocracy’ in his latest book The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It. Capitalism, and a Conservative strategy of privatisation, has both transferred the wealth of the state back into the hands of corporations, and transferred control to the directors and CEOs of those companies. Those very directors and board members are the same individuals who sit at the top of the ruling political class, therefore I would argue it is inevitable that they would want to secure their positions. Programmes like I’m A Celebrity help to do just that. Some of these ideas are discussed in more detail by Dr Justin Murphy of Southampton University in his own blog.
When Russell Brand was interviewed by Jeremy Paxman, the recording was viewed ten million times online. It certainly got people talking. Dr Paolo Gerbaudo has coined the term ‘Anarcho-populism’ to describe the cultural cross-over of neoanarchism and populism politics. Brand argued for the pointlessness of voting on the basis that he was completely indifferent to the outcome as it didn’t seem to make any difference to the status-quo, and for a return to democracy. He also welcomed the revolution he sees on the horizon. The ‘return to democracy’ idea is a reaction against perceived class oppression and globalisation, and has much in common with Communism, but the point is were it not for the rise of celebrity culture, coupled with the WWW and social networking, Brand would have been denied the opportunity to highlight the debate. Brand is a popular figure who comes across as intelligent and well informed. Other celebrity activists less so – Angelina Jolie expressed her dismay at the proposed mansion tax, declaring herself to be responsible with her money, yet this made her look ridiculous given her enormous wealth, and undermined her status as a would-be political figure. Nevertheless, celebrities like Brand have raised the profile of political debate and engagement through the use of social media, which can only be a good thing.
So, What About The Arab Spring?
The political protests that happened in the middle-east, resulting in revolutions that overthrew dictators such as Gadaffi and Mubarack, were largely represented as having been successful because of social media such as twitter. I remember watching tweets streaming through in 2009, as well as the reported delay in routine site maintenance by Twitter in order to keep the channels of communication open. What I didn’t wonder at the time, which seems incredible now, is why those tweets were in English when they should have been in a foreign language if they really were responsible for the revolution. Evgeny Morosov has argued that social networking sites like twitter are nothing more than tools used to help organise the demonstrations, and not responsible for the revolutions in themselves. Repressive regimes always seek to monitor and/or control the mass media because of the opportunities they afford to communicate alternative views and galvanise action, not because they are in themselves powerful. The connections between the revolutionaries would have been made long before the actual event took place. However, he does concede that WWW has the power to cause considerable disruption.
I’ve argued that there’s some evidence to support the idea that online petitions can stimulate a wide engagement in the political process. I’ve also argued that popular culture and the popular media, including social networks and the parts of the WWW dedicated to everything entertaining is encouraged in an effort to keep us disengaged. However, I’ve suggested that anarcho-populist figures like Russell Brand can do some good – even if they refuse to engage in the process of voting because they have no interest in the outcome, and don’t regard it as democracy. I’ve also suggested that the WWW does have power as a tool for disruption. Perhaps the answer is a form of collective activism, where we still vote individuals in to represent us (but perhaps change the system to something like proportional representation) and from there on, ministers have to debate the issues we instruct them to via petition, with none of the ‘over-100,000-signatures-and-it-might-be-considered’ qualifiers, but a guarantee that the issues will be debated. By beefing-up the impact of online petitions, where people are engaging, we might feel as if they really DO work for us, and begin to change the status-quo.
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- Christensen, H. (2011) Political activities on the Internet: Slacktivism or political participation by other means?. Volume 16, No. 2, First Monday. Volume 16, No. 2. 2011-01-03. Available at: http://firstmonday.org/article/view/3336/2767 (Accessed: 7 December 2014).
- General election turnout 1945 – 2010 (no date) UK Political Info. Available at: http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm (Accessed: 7 December 2014).
- Morozov, E. (2011) ‘Facebook and Twitter are just places revolutionaries go’, The Guardian, 7 March. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/mar/07/facebook-twitter-revolutionaries-cyber-utopians (Accessed: 7 December 2014).
- News (2014) King’s College London. Available at: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/ddh/newsrecords/2014/anarcho-populismzxz.aspx (Accessed: 7 December 2014).